The next step for web series aesthetics: Creating worlds, not just stories

And in the north, well put our premium content

And in the north, we'll put our premium content

After a long, incubated gestation period during which audiences have been relatively meager, web series are beginning to come into their own, aesthetically speaking. We have genres and aesthetic styles unique to the medium – the vlog (Gemini Division, LG15), the mini series (Dr. Horrible), the gamer show (The Guild), the fanfic show (My Roommate the Cylon), fantasy (Sorority Forever), the how-to (You Suck at Photoshop, TikiBarTV), the unscripted comedy/drama (The Shatner Project), and the list goes on. We have starlets (Day, Rose, Southern) and stars (Parikh, the other Rose).

Now, it’s time to think bigger. Time to take these new aesthetics and styles and apply them to more ambitious projects with more complicated, robust narratives. I’m talking about graduating from linear, episodic narrative and going toward an interactive medium’s inevitable end point. We need to start building worlds, not just stories.

A world is bigger than just one story – it’s a collection of stories that all follow a defined set of rules and conventions and use consistent motifs and styles. Worlds are not confined to one story line or one medium. Star Wars is probably the most complete example – fanfic books and spinoff movies and TV series all take place within the “Star Wars universe,” even if they don’t directly add to the narrative saga of Anakin, Luke, Amidala, and Leia. But worlds exist elsewhere too – take a look at The Office, with its accompanying Dunder Mifflin Infinity and webisodes. Or SNL, which essentially lives on the web these days, and has found increased TV ratings as a result.

On the web, we have an opportunity that these mainstream shows don’t – rather than making a central story that’s a primary focus and adding secondary content that builds a world around it, we can build the world first and have users decide what the primary story is. We can conceive of projects that, from the beginning, use multiple media to tell a story. These projects will combine long form episodes that can be branded as premium content, shorter episodes that can be watched more casually, and an interactive experience that complements both of them, and they will not intrinsically privilege any one aspect over another. Having these multiple story outlets gives the creators the freedom to take their story whichever way the users decide they prefer it. That’s the perfection of the web series medium, when users have the power to decide what everything looks like.

A fantastic benefit of this is it makes it easier to make money off of web media. With all these different arms to a world, there are so many different opportunities for advertiser tie-ins, distribution deals, and regular old CPMs. Instead of selling an entire series to one sponsor (as The Guild and many others have), you can have multiple sponsors covering each part of the entire project, increasing their exposure and your profits. You could even have one part of your world be subscription-based – like running a cable network and a broadcast network all at the same time.

If this sounds a lot like video games, that’s because the web is an interactive experience….just like a video game. I don’t think people give nearly enough attention to that fact: the way we explore information on the internet owes a lot to the way we explore worlds and discover rules in Mario Galaxy. We learn what we can click (link!) and what we can’t click (no link!). We learn the rules of social interaction with other players/users. We learn the physics of the world – Mario can only jump so high, and we can only scroll so fast (and only when the text is active, not the embedded flash video. Ever notice that? Man, it’s annoying…).

Of course, there’s a problem here: the little indies who are undoubtedly making the absolute best content on the web right now don’t have the capital or the resources to make this kind of project happen. Or do they? That’s my challenge to the web today. Web producers should be proud of where the medium has come from and where it is today, because they’ve worked hard to get it here. But now it’s time to make like Doug, and think big. Let’s raise the bar, stop wishing the medium was legitimized and make it legit ourselves.

3 Responses to “The next step for web series aesthetics: Creating worlds, not just stories”

  1. Marc Hustvedt writes:

    Great post Evan. It’s absolutely essential.

    One that I’m keeping an eye on is John Chu’s The LXD (legion of extraordinary dancers) which essentially is building out a whole mythology behind the “seven schools of dance.” What started as a somewhat informal group of dancers (who performed at YouTube Live) is now a comic-book origin story that will emerge as a web series. The world he is creating is clearly able to be explored in gaming, UGC video and of course film.

  2. James Huffman writes:

    WELL DONE! Well said… great vision… I’m gonna make sure I’m ON this bus.

  3. hyashinsu writes:

    Great article! I just followed Marc’s Tweet to here. :)

    I am looking into different interactivity options for LUMINA once the first season starts.

    Roleplaying and fan fiction has historically been strong in the fantasy/scifi/manga realms, and has tended to do well regardless of whether the original source material was intended to be interactive or not. It would be interesting to see how well this works in other genres!

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